Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The English Major in Decline

A smart post at ads without products responding to last week's book review/assessment in The Nation about the English professing gig.

Both pieces, and the book in question , seem like pieces of conversations we should be having.


Blogger Michael E. said...

Very interesting, Rachel. Thanks for posting these links. In case anyone's curious, Emory's English major numbers (from what I understand) would comport with the narrative of decline that these articles suggest, though I also understand they have been flat in recent years. For what it is worth, my anecdotal understanding is that these numbers are similar in other humanities disciplines.

There's a lot to chew on here, but I do want to say one thing: I'm not sure that we suddenly shifted from a discipline determined by internal conflict to one governed by the market whims of teenagers. It's just not as simple as that. (Intellectual history is usually a top-down history of ideas, whereas the lived experience is messier.)

I have lots more to say, but I'll try to limit myself to one more thing. I've been reading doom-and-gloom pieces about English since I've been in graduate school, and they always seem to be written by people at elite universities: William D. is at Yale; Andy Delbanco had one years ago on "The Rise and Fall of English"; and of course my colleague produces them; it goes on. Why is it that I never look at the byline and see someone teaching at Georgia State? (That's a real question. I really don't know.)

9:14 PM  
Blogger Michael E. said...

OK, one more think. Tim Burke has a response here: http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=541

I don't know how to embed links in comments.

9:26 PM  
Blogger rachel said...

The questions about the subject position of the doom and gloom author is a very interesting one. Maybe it's because, as your colleague's recent piece suggested, people with bigger loads at state schools simply haven't the time for the pessimistic reflection. Self-generated work indeed! I wonder, though, if students at such universities are disproportionately shifting to pre-professional fields, in comparison with students at state or lower-tier schools.

It is the sort of argument that can be Whiggish, for sure. The numbers may always decline, that may be the kind of world we live in now and the reason could be just about anything. I'm sure you can find people on the internet who would blame rampant leftism and divisive identity politics, as opposed to the decline of them. Geoffrey Harpham, when we was here, blamed interdisciplinarity, essentially.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I think there is obviously something about the people at elite universities having the time to write pieces like this.

But I believe that it also has to do with the publishing organs themselves. Is The Nation going to publish a critique of the English major from someone at Georgia State when they can have someone from Yale do it for them? The idea that the very best that is thought and said comes from a few places on the coasts (and is subsequently filtered through selective magazine, journals, and newspapers [see my rant on the NYT]) seems problematic for people in a profession who at the very least should be aware of the formation of canons of written language and the power that these canons exercise in shaping our world.

I wonder also if Georgia State is not producing such manifestos because their students have already declined to the point of its not being worth talking about. In other words, are people who are privileged enough to be attending elite universities also privileged enough to have been able to avoid thinking about the realities of the job market for a number of years? Do people at Georgia State have had to think about what jobs they would have while people at Harvard, Yale, and Emory do not?

It's surely not as simple as this. But I for one am not looking forward to reading such jeremiads regularly for the next 40 years.

10:51 AM  
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